The Cassini Space Probe is at it again, providing the people of Earth with rare glimpses of Saturn and its moons. And with this latest picturesque capture, revealed by NASA, the ESA and ASI back in April, we got to see the moon of Enceladus as it sprayed icy vapor off into space. For some time, scientists have known about the large collection of geysers located at the moon’s south pole. But thanks to Cassini, this was the first time that it was caught (beautifully) on film.
First discovered by Cassini in 2005, scientists have been trying to learn more about how these plumes of water behave, what they are made of and – most importantly – where they are coming from. The working theory is that Enceladus has a liquid subsurface ocean, and pressure from the rock and ice layers above combined with heat from within force the water up through surface cracks near the moon’s south pole.
When this water reaches the surface it instantly freezes, sending plumes of water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds hundreds of kilometers out into space. Cassini has flown through the spray several times now, and instruments have detected that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles.
Tests run on samples that were captured indicate that the salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans. These findings, combined with the presence of organic compounds, indicate that Enceladus may be one of the best candidates in the Solar System for finding life.
Much like Europa, the life would be contained within the planet’s outer crust. But as we all know, life comes in many, many forms. Not all of it needs to be surface-dweling in nature, and an atmosphere need not exist either. Granted, these are essential for life to thrive, but not necessarily exist.
What’s more, this could come in handy if manned missions to Cassini ever do take place. Water is key to making hydrogen fuel, and could come in might handy if ever people set down and feel the need to terraform the place. Of course, they might want to make sure they aren’t depriving subterranean organisms of their livelihood first. Don’t want another Avatar situation on our hands!